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7 Common Training Mistakes - and How to Avoid Them

Ren Volpe, January 6 2023
5 dogs sitting on a rock at the beach
5 dogs sitting on a rock at the beach, photo by Ren Volpe

Living with a dog takes effort. It can be challenging. Dogs do not innately know how they are supposed to behave in our human world. Some dogs easily and happily trot through life. Others need a lot of help coping with our noisy and hectic human world.

Knowing how to train your dog effectively is an acquired skill. None of us, even the best dog trainer, is born with this knowledge. There's a steep learning curve for first-time dog owners. If you've had dogs all your life, you need to know that recent scientific research negates much of the old-fashioned training advice from 20 or 30 years ago. So let's ring in the New Year with a renewed commitment to raising and training our dogs without pain, force, or fear.

Here’s a short list of seven common training mistakes and how to avoid them.

1. Not Enough Management

Sometimes we get fixated on finding an involved training solution when making a slight change in the dog's environment will quickly and efficiently address the problem. In fact, you can prevent many unwanted behaviors by employing what trainers call "environmental management." This means changing your dog's environment to prevent them from engaging in certain behaviors.

For example, you can work hard to train your dog not to rummage in the kitchen trash. Or you can simply put the garbage behind a cabinet or get a can with a lid.

Management does not require your dog to learn anything new; you don't need treats or cues. Instead of complaining that "my dog should know better" or "I already trained her not to do that," set your dog up for success by managing her environment and not putting her into situations that are too challenging.

Whatever the issue, first think of ways you can control the environment rather than trying to control the dog (for a longer read on this topic, see Better Behavior Without Training).

2. Using Corrections, Punishment, or Harsh Discipline

The use of punishment, fear, or force in dog training will work quickly to suppress unwanted behaviors, but using aversive techniques including shock or prong collars, leash corrections, or physical force comes with a high price for both you and your dog.

Don't buy into old-fashioned training advice that insists certain breeds or types of dogs need a heavy hand. Most zoo animals are now trained using positive reinforcement methods. If a leopard or a rhino can learn without punishment, so can your dog.

Recent scientific studies show that reward-based training - that is, training without corrections or pain - is effective and humane and does not jeopardize your dog's physical or psychological welfare.

3. Unrealistic Expectations

Your social media feed is probably full of dogs performing amazing tricks or chilling out in chaotic environments. But online, we mostly see snippets of dogs at their best. What you don't see in that cute photo or short online video is the hours of training or the edits and bloopers.

Our expectations of dogs in modern society have become increasingly unreasonable. There is no other animal (domesticated or otherwise) on which we put such high demands. We expect them to stay inside and do nothing for 8-10 hours a day, and then twice a day, they should walk calmly at our side on busy sidewalks without sniffing or pulling. Your five-month-old dog will probably not be able to lie quietly for an hour at a busy sidewalk cafe while you eat, any more than you could expect a toddler to ride public transit alone.

Accepting your dog's limitations - whether due to age, trauma, lack of socialization, or quirk of personality - isn't about having low expectations or not setting boundaries. Start with the dog in front of you and work incrementally toward your training goals.

4. Inconsistency

Predictable and consistent expectations are a must for successful dog training. This means everyone in the household must agree and stick to the rules.

It is confusing for your dog if they are sometimes allowed to jump up to greet you, or occasionally fed from the dinner table, or the "no dogs on the furniture" rule is randomly enforced.

5. Accidentally Rewarding Unwanted Behavior

Reinforcement drives behavior. Behavior that is reinforced will increase or continue. This is true for all living things. We repeat behaviors that have positive consequences.

Your dog gets reinforcement (positive consequences) from you and from interacting with the world. Some behaviors are self-reinforcing. It just feels good to dig or to chase, for example. Positive reinforcement training means we intentionally reward behaviors we want. If your dog comes when you call and gets a treat, they are more likely to come the next time you call them.

To find out why your dog keeps doing the same annoying thing repeatedly, step back and take note of what happens after they perform the naughty behavior. Unfortunately, many dog owners unknowingly reward their dogs for inappropriate behaviors and then get upset when the behavior increases or continues.

For instance, if you shout "no" and push them away every time your dog jumps up, chances are your dog finds the shouting and touching reinforcing. In this case, your dog got a positive consequence: interaction and attention from you. Likewise, if your dog gets to move forward (which is what he wants) every time he pulls on the leash, you will get more pulling.

6. Repeating Cues

If your dog doesn't respond to a cue, do not repeat it. For example, if you are repeating "come come come come" and your dog is walking away from you, the problem isn't the word "come" or temporary deafness. The problem is you haven't properly trained your dog to come when called.

At best, repeating a command until your dog responds teaches them they only have to sit after you've said "sit" five times. At worst, you've just trained your dog to ignore your verbal cues. Cue nagging is frustrating for both dog and human. If your dog knows "sit" but is not responding, consider the three D's below.

7. Forgetting the Three Ds: Distraction, Distance, and Duration

Always train at the dog's level and only ask for a more challenging behavior when your dog has mastered the easier steps. The level of difficulty for a new skill can be split into the following categories:

  • Distance (how far away your dog is from you)
  • Distraction (arousing sights and sounds around you)
  • Duration (how long the dog must perform the behavior)

For example, your dog can remain in a down-stay on the sidewalk, but not when you walk away (distance), or a skateboard passes (distraction), or for more than 30 seconds (duration). Add each "D" separately, slowly, and systematically (watch this video for a thorough explanation).

Embrace Lifelong Training

Whether you have a puppy, an adolescent, or an adult dog, training is a lifelong journey. There are no quick fixes. Understand that you will be training, on some level, throughout your dog’s entire life. To ensure good behavior, you’ll want to make training a daily habit, incorporating a few seconds of training whenever you walk your dog, take him out for a potty break, take his leash/harness off or on, or meet new people whether in your home or out in the world.

Finally, remember that a good training relationship is based on trust and mutual cooperation between you and your best friend. Both humans and dogs learn best when they are having fun. If your dog can’t tell the difference between play and training, you’re doing it right!

About the author:
Ren Volpe is a Professional Dog Trainer and a Certified Behavior Consultant. She is also the crazy dog lady behind GoDogPro, a new online service that matches dog owners with force-free dog professionals godogpro.com